VOICES: Welcome Dayton a decade later

Daytonian Thomas Wahlrab at the White House on Sept. 19. He is in front of a screen in the room where Champions of Change were recognized and panel discussions held. CONTRIBUTED

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Daytonian Thomas Wahlrab at the White House on Sept. 19. He is in front of a screen in the room where Champions of Change were recognized and panel discussions held. CONTRIBUTED

Just over ten years ago, Welcome Dayton, a community-inspired initiative, formally and officially offered recognition to our community’s ongoing efforts to welcome immigrants. The level of human migration, then as well as today, is said to surpass any other in the history of humankind. We are witnessing a world-wide disruption of people and cultures.

The war in Ukraine brings the world’s refugees into sharp focus as over one million people have begun to move from their home country in just seven days. Ukrainians are predominately traveling to Poland because proximity to a conflict or disaster overdetermines where refugees initially go and likely stay, but policy and ideology play the added role of determining how refugees are received and whether they are welcomed.

Intentionally engaging with the global movement of people is a local issue, a seizing of a moment when our local vision penetrates global realities. This phenomenon engenders local benefits: By accepting immigrants and supporting their ability to engage and contribute, Dayton maintains and renews its vitality. By welcoming immigrants in ways that honor their human capacity of agency and empathy, Dayton unleashes our community’s human potential and sustains our moral grounding as human beings.

In 2014, Dayton offered to welcome and house unaccompanied minors who were crossing the southern border into the US. In 2015, Dayton openly offered to welcome Syrian refugees. This past year we’ve welcomed 136 Afghans who have settled in Dayton. Between 2011 and 2019, 1,512 refugees settled in Dayton. The global movement of people played a role in the Welcome Dayton Plan, a City of Dayton initiative, but it was the choices of the ethically engaged community members that shaped the City’s policy towards welcoming and inclusion instead of exclusion.

Rather than despairing over the monolith of exclusionary practices against the global migration of people, a decade ago citizens and city officials declared Dayton a “welcoming” community. Welcoming America certified Dayton as “welcoming” – and thus Dayton became the first city in the country to be so certified. In response to a recent survey, seventy percent of Dayton’s residents said they would be supportive if an immigrant family moved in next door to them.

Welcome Dayton showcases the agency of a small city and its citizens to act on a global level by intentionally responding to the fact of the global movement of people. Through supporting myriad acts of welcoming strangers by individuals and organizations, Welcome Dayton is impacting our local and global communities.

Tom Wahlrab is the former Executive Director of the City of Dayton Human Relations Council and the Dayton Mediation Center. He is one of the principal facilitators of the community conversation that resulted in the Welcome Dayton Plan.

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